Facts at a Glance
Population.............................. 4.7 million (2002 est.)
President (voted "President-for-life").. Saparmurat Niyazov
Size.................................... 488,100 km2 (188,500 mi2)
Currency................................ Manat (US$1 = 5200 manat)
GNP..................................... US$640 per capita
GDP..................................... US$ 21.5 billion
Exports................................. Oil, natural gas, raw cotton, textiles
Turkmenistan is a central Asian country the size of California that consists of a large sand desert and high mountains. Iran and Afghanistan are neighboring nations, sharing high mountain ranges that act as natural boundaries. The fabled Silk Route that connected India with Europe took Marco Polo's trading caravans through southern Turkmenistan, where a number of villages sprang up to greet weary sojourners, and along which the capital city of Ashgabat now sits. Turkmenistan used to be one of the states of the former Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991, when many of the central Asian states broke away and declared their independence. Russians still comprise 9% of the population, but most of the nation is Turkmen, a nomadic people descended from Turkic immigrants and the Mongols from the steppes and deserts. Turkmenistan, rich in untapped oil and gas reserves, had the potential to become a new Kuwait, wealthy beyond comprehension. But its ruler, Saparmurat Niyazov, has kept control of the government with an iron fist, and has taken the nation deeply into debt during a rebuilding of the capitol city, a city no one visits.
Turkmenistan is shaped like an eyebrow. It is bordered by the Caspian Sea to the west, by Afghanistan to the south and east, by Iran on its long southern border, and by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to its north. It is 488,100 km2, or roughly the size of California.
Turkmenistan is mostly desert bordered by mountains. The Kara Kum (meaning Black Sands) is Turkmenistan's huge central region, one of the largest sand deserts in the world. The Amu Darya river runs from the north to the south-eastern Afghani border. The southern mountain range, the Kopet Dag (Many Mountains) separates Turkmenistan from Iran.
Very little of the land (2-4%) is arable. The Karakumskiy Kanal was built by Russians to irrigate land for cotton production in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Alexander the Great led his forces through the Silk Route in 331 BC. on his way to conquer India. Alexander's war-horse Bucephalus was an Akhal-Teke, a strain of race horses bred in Turkmenistan and much admired for their beauty, speed, and stamina. It was in Hyrcania, an area close to Turkmenistan along that Caspian sea, that Bucephalus was stolen:
"Here some barbarians came on those who were leading Alexander's horse Bucephalus and captured him.. Alexander was furious at this and set a herald threatening to kill them all, with their wives and children, unless they returned him his horse. But when they came bringing the horse and offering to place their cities in his hands, he treated them all with kindness and paid the captors a handsome for the animal." - Plutarch, Lives 2
Two centuries later the Parthians, from northern Iran, conquered this region and made the city of Nisa their capital. Nisa, now a suburb of Ashgabat, has many ancient ruins from the days of the Pathians. The spread of Islam occurred in the 7th century as Turks invaded this region. Trade routes from India to Europe were established through southern Turkmenistan. Marco Polo (1254-1324) wrote of the "Silk Road" in his Travels. Trade caravans were constantly in fear of the warring tribesmen in this area.
The Turkish Seldjuk empire spread across central Asia in the 11th century. They sought access to Afghanistan and the Kashmir Valley in modern day Pakistan. The Turkish foothold in Turkmenistan was lost to Genghis Khan, the Mongolian warlord who swept through the region in the 12th century. Remnants of the Mongol horde remain today, although they represent only a small fraction of Turkmenistan's current population.
Centuries of intertribal warfare ensued after Genghis Khan. Warlords in the area preyed on Silk Road travelers, taking prisoners and selling them as slaves. This continued until the days of Tsarist Russia. When a group of Russians was kidnapped, the Tsar sent in troops. A massacre of 7000 Turkmen in 1881 at Geok Depe, near Ashgabat, followed by another 8000 fleeing across Kara Kum ended local Turkmen control of the area. The Russian empire absorbed the area around Turkmenistan by 1894. Turkmen, however, chafed under Russian control. During the October Revolution of 1917 a local uprising was quelled after Turkmenistan was declared a republic of the Soviet Union (1924). Its modern day boundaries were drawn at this time. 6
Turkmenistan was one of the Soviet Union's poorest republics until 1991, when it gained its independence after the Soviet Union dissolved.
The country is run by President Saparmurat Niyazov, a de facto strongman dictator who has run the country since 1991. Niyazov has encouraged a cult of personality develop around his personhood, exemplified by the observance of a national holiday in honor of his birthday. A tall golden statue of him sits in the center of the capitol Ashgabat, atop the rocket-shaped Arch of Neutrality. In 1999, the Mejlit, Turkmenistan's rubber-stamp Parliament, voted Niyazov, now 63 years old, president-for-life.
"Officially, Turkmenistan became a multiparty democracy in 1991. As in other former Soviet states, however, former Communist Party members, regrouped as the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, still dominate the political process. The DPT harbors the traditional Communist suspicion of Islamic fundamentalism." - DK World Desk Reference, 2000 1
Using the name Turkmenbashi, he wrote a spiritually inspired book entitled Ruhnama (Book of the Soul). It is now compulsory reading for all Turkmeni students from the time that they are 8 years old until they graduate from university. Ruhnama is held up as a Koran-like religious text that the Mejlit has declared to be a holy text.
A Turkish-like policy of oppression of fundamentalist Islam has gained him many enemies among Islamic believers. A Nov. 25, 2002 assassination attempt against his life resulted in even more brutal suppression of political opponents. The attack was organized by exiled opposition leaders who used to be in Niyazov's cabinet. 7
Niyazov's eccentricities are magnified by his absolute power. In 2002 he renamed days of the week and months of the year.
Cities and Points of Interest
Ashgabat - Capital
Ashgabat is Turkmenistan's capitol city of 400,000 people. It sits at the foothills of the Kopet Dag mountains in the south central part of the country, about twenty miles from the Iranian border.
Besides government offices, it also has embassies (Russia, Turkey, United States, and others). A large open air market is fun to visit.
"The highlight of the city is definitely the huge Sunday Tolkuchka bazaar which attracts a colourful Cecil B de Mille cast of thousands. It sprawls across acres of desert on the outskirts of the city, and consists of corrals of camels and goats, avenues of red-clothed women squatting before silver jewellery, and clusters of trucks from which Uzbeks hawk everything from pistachios to car parts. The bazaar is a great place to purchase Turkmenistan's traditional dark red carpets." Lonely Planet 4
Ashgabat is a showcase for President Niyazov's ego. It is laid out in grand monumental style, as was Ceaucescu's Bucharest in Romania. The center is the Arch of Neutrality, with Niyazov's statue atop it. The city is largely uninhabited, due to the fact that, according to the Lonely Planet travel web site, Turkmen don't enjoy the life of a city, preferring life in the mountains. About thirty grand hotels, such as the Gata Atlin, sit in downtown Ashgabat, but they are largely empty because many travelers are not permitted to stay in them. Posters of Niyazov are plastered on almost every building in the capitol city.
Nisa was the capital city established by the Parthian empire. Its fortress like walls are still visible. It is a 30 minute drive from Ashgabat
"The port town of Turkmenbashi is enclosed by a crescent of mountains looking out over the turquoise-blue Caspian Sea. The surrounding pocked desert shoreline seems composed of grey dust frosted with salt rather than sand and looks more like NASA footage of the moon. Turkmenbashi is Central Asia's sole port and sea link to European Russia. It has been variously described as 'miserable', 'joyless' and a 'desolate dust-heap', but while it's definitely hot and dusty, it's also quite attractive in a sleepy Mediterranean sort of way. If you can cope with a little grime and aren't too choosy about what you eat, then this single-storey, pastel-painted port is a relaxing spot to rest up for a day or two, and there are hikes into the surrounding mountains that offer fine views of the town. Ashghabat is to the south-east, 12 hours away by train." Lonely Planet 4
Dashkhovuz is a major city that sits on the north-central border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It has a beautiful mausoleum, the Turabeg Khanym.
Krasnovodsk has an airport. It sits on the Caspian Sea, on the edge of the Kara Kum desert.
Repetek Desert Reserve
"With recorded air temperatures of over 50°C (122°F), and the surface of the sand sizzling at a soul-scorching 70° (158°F), you wouldn't expect the Karakum desert to be inhabited by cuddly creatures, but the animals that call these rolling sand ridges home are a particularly repulsive lot. Among the thousand-plus indigenous species of insects, spiders, reptiles and rodents are bronze-coloured cobras, large black scorpions, tarantulas and prehistoric-looking monitors which grow to over 1.5m (5ft) in length andstill put on an alarmingly good show at the 100-metre dash. All of these lovable critters are objects of study at the Repetek Desert Research Centre, which boasts a visitors' centre, museum and herbarium. Visits can be arranged with tour operators in Charjou, in Turkmenistan's central-east and 70km (43mi) to the north of the reserve." Lonely Planet 4
"Gaurdak is in the extreme eastern corner of Turkmenistan, squeezed between the Amu-Darya and Uzbekistan. The mountainous landscape of this region is starkly beautiful, and contains interesting gorges, waterfalls and cave complexes. The Kugitang reserve, right on the Uzbek border, is a geological research centre, the pride of which is a rock plateau imprinted with hundreds of dinosaur footprints. It's believed that 150 million years ago, in the Jurassic period, the plateau was the bed of a lagoon which dried out, leaving the wet, footprinted sand to bake in the sun. Charjou, in Turkmenistan's central-east, is the only place from which you can fly to Gaurdak." Lonely Planet 4
Kopet Dag Mountain Range
The Kopet Dag mountain range separates northern Iran from southern Turkmenistan. This is a contentious region, and traveling is regarded as unsafe except with a guide from a reliable travel agency. Camel or horse treks can be arranged.
Baharden ('Father of Lakes'), an hour outside of Ashgabat, is famous for its warm (97 degrees) underground sulphur springs. It's located 200 feet below the Kopet Dag mountains. Be advised that it's rather primitive compared to European standards.
Minor cities with exotic names such as Gyzylarbat, Balkanabat, Turkmenbashi, and Kerki (Gushgy) lie along the same old trade route that ran between the Caspian Sea and Afghanistan.
Ashgabat has an international airport with services by Lufthansa, Turkmenistan Airlines, and others. Flights are through Istanbul, Abu Dhabi, Damascus, Moscow, London, and Delhi.
Travel restrictions are onerous. Visas are required before entering.
Vast oil and gas reserves lie underneath Turkmenistan's soil. It's estimated that Turkmenistan has the fifth largest natural gas reserves in the world. These reserves have not been exploited.
An absence of pipelines into the country make transportation of these resources difficult. Refineries do not exist, and roadways and railroad service across country borders are poor.
The government provides citizens in the major cities almost-free apartments, and provides free electricity, water, natural gas, salt, and public transportation. 5 However, there are frequent electricity shortages.
The average worker's wages are $25/month5. There are unofficial, uncorroborated reports of high unemployment.
Tsarist Russia developed some of the land for cotton growing. Vast, inefficient lattices of irrigation ditches were built, which drained waterways of much of their natural vitality.
There are 16 AM, eight FM, and two shortwave radio stations, as well as three television stations, listened to by 1.225 million radios and 820,000 television sets. There is very little Internet presence. No known ISPs, and an estimated 2000 Internet users.
There is one official Turkmenistan television station. Radio/television news anchors recite, by rote, the following phrase before reading their headlines:
"May the best wishes of our beloved 'serdar' (leader) materialize in the golden century of the Turkmens (the 21st century that Niyazov says should bring prosperity to his country). May the Great Turkmenbashi, who works day and night for the sake of his country and people, remain alert and in good health. May his sound plans become reality. And now, let us start our news bulletin." Radio Free Europe 5
The people of Turkmenistan are an admixture of Turkic nomads called Turkmen (77%), Uzbeks (9%), Russians (7%), Kazakhs (2%), Tatars (1%), and others (Mongols, Persians, Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis, and Armenians - 5% combined). Turkmen are by far the most dominant, making Turkmenistan a largely homogeneous country ethnically.
Although Turkmen is the official language, Russian is still widely used within the Turkmeni government.
Yurts, round straw and mud houses covered with animal skins, are used by the desert people.
The Sunni variant of Islam is the dominant religion among the non-Russian citizens. It's estimated that 89% of the population is Muslim, 9% is Eastern Orthodox, and 2% for other religions. However, the government suppresses fundamentalist Islam, believing it to be a destabilizing threat to the existing governmental order. This has its roots in Turkish animosity toward the Arab flavor of Islam.
Turkmenistan spends $90 million annually on its military forces, about 3.4% of its GNP. There are approximately 980,000 men available for military operations, i.e., they've been trained and are physically fit.3
1. DK World Desk Reference, DK, (c)2000
2. Plutarch, Selected Lives and Essays, Louisa Ropes Loomis, tr. (c) 1951 Walter J. Black, Inc., Roslyn, NY
3. CIA World Factbook
4. Lonely Planet http://www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/central_asia/turkmenistan/history.htm
5. Radio Free Europe http://www.rferl.org/nca/features/2002/05/03052002093753.asp
6. U.S. Dept of State , Background note on Turkmenistan: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2866.htm
7. Iran Press Service, http://www.iran-press-service.com/articles_2002/Nov_2002/niyazov_survives_assassination_251102.htm
Submitted in partial fulfillment for the requirements of the Everything Noder Pageant™ 2003.